Is God a State of Mind?

By Laurie Barclay

Reviewed By Dr. Jacqueline Brooks
WebMD Medical News Archive

April 11, 2001 -- Read the daily paper or watch the local TV news and a seemingly endless parade of chaotic, violent events unfolds: school shootings, terrorism, murder, child abuse. Many people make sense of these seemingly senseless events through a belief in a Supreme Being and faith that their God won't desert them in a time of need. This faith may be well placed, according to a Philadelphia-based radiologist -- well placed in the brain, that is.

In Why God Won't Go Away, released April 1 by Ballantine Books, co-author Andrew B. Newberg, MD, explains his theory that the human brain is hard-wired for religion. Just as the mind has the capacity for analytical thought, abstract mathematical reasoning, and invention of highly sophisticated technology, it also has the capacity -- and the built-in design -- to experience God.

Scientific study of how the brain works can't tell us if there is a God, he tells WebMD, but it can tell us about how human beings understand God.

"Our work -- neurotheology -- has a reverence for both science and religion," he says."

In a study to be published this month in Psychiatry Research and Neuroimaging, Newberg and a team of fellow researchers describe their study of the brain activity of eight Tibetan Buddhists in the throes of a peak meditative experience.

"We used meditation as a model ... for prayer and other types of intense religious experience," says Newberg, assistant professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Using a special X-ray procedure called SPECT, the scientists were able to see increased activity in the brain during meditation. Brain areas important in focused concentration were especially active.

Even more astounding was altered activity in a brain region that normally orients us and tells us where our bodies are in space. The different pattern of brain activity in this particular brain region may explain why meditators feel transported out of the physical world and into a spiritual realm that seems no less real.

"As the boundaries between self and physical surroundings go away, the meditator feels at one with something larger, whether a religious community, the world as a whole, or ultimately, God," Newberg says.

The brain activity patterns in the meditating Buddhists were similar to those in the praying Franciscan nuns, another religious group studied by Newberg. Hymns, chants, ritual dancing, and sacred rites may also intensify focus, block out external stimuli, and provide a pathway to mystical experience, even in nonbelievers.

"Too much meditation can over-drive brain areas and drop us into another universe for a while," says Laurence O. McKinney, director of the American Institute for Mindfulness in Arlington, Mass.

Analyzing the brain states of spiritual practices started in the 1960s when researchers from the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., first went to India to record the brain waves of yogis, McKinney says. He claims his group first coined the term 'neurotheology' in the 1980s, and then published the book Neurotheology in 1994.

"Explanations change every time we get a new [way to measure brain function], but eternal truths and eternal questions still remain," McKinney tells WebMD.

One of these new measurement techniques, called functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has partially confirmed Newberg's findings.

In a study published last year in NeuroReport, investigators at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston used MRI to examine the brains of five experienced meditators and found increased activity in the regions involved in concentration and excitability.

"Additional brain regions involved in memory were also ... activated during meditation," Jeffery A. Dusek, PhD, associate director for clinical research at the Mind/Body Medical Institute, tells WebMD. Future plans for Dusek's team are to re-evaluate these findings in a three-year study funded by the Atlanta-based CDC.

Still, some experts advise against reading too much into Newberg's findings.

"Anything we do or feel, from a simple activity like moving a finger to the deepest passion like love or rage, has its own characteristic pattern of brain activity," says Pietro Pietrini, MD, PhD, who has used SPECT scanning to study brain activity in different emotional states -- for example, in healthy subjects imagining acts of aggression.

"This is a fascinating field that needs to be entered with extreme caution and a rigorous scientific approach," says Pietrini, a professor of clinical biochemistry and psychiatry at the University of Pisa in Italy.

"There is a complex interrelationship between mind, body, and spirit," Michael E. McCullough, PhD, tells WebMD. "Those behaviors and experiences designed to put people in touch with the transcendent may give them a survival advantage."

In an analysis of 42 different clinical studies, McCullough found that religious involvement was associated with lower death rate, even after accounting for obvious health advantages such as less alcohol and tobacco use and more social support.

Could active religious faith prevent illness or forestall death? "It's too soon to tell," says McCullough, associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"Understanding how the brain works can go a long way toward understanding the impact of religion, both physically and spiritually," says Newberg. With religious experiences such as meditation or prayer, heart rate and blood pressure decrease and changes in hormone levels may improve the function of the immune system, he explains.

Brain activity studies show that meditation is not just a passive experience but that increased excitability at peak meditation seems to confirm the "active bliss" reported by Newberg's study subjects.

"They feel profoundly calm, yet highly alert and intensely aware," Newberg says. "Spiritual experiences are more real to them than everyday reality like walking down the street. And they're not frightening, disorganized, or disorienting like drug-induced states or hallucinations seen in mental illness."

"We're looking at philosophy and religion in a more scientific way," says Pietrini, says. "Science has no way to prove or disprove a Creator, but finding unique patterns of brain activity corresponding to religious experiences is entirely compatible with religious beliefs."

Though skeptics may argue that God lives only in the mind of the faithful, Newberg suggests that the opposite conclusion is equally valid: "If there is a God, it makes perfect sense that He would create a way for us to communicate with Him."

"If truth were told, nearly all the nonbelievers would love a reason to believe," McKinney says. "Newberg believes he's done a good job providing some reasons, and for those who follow his path, I wish them well."



Religion: is it all in your head?

Psychology Today
Vilayanur Ramashandran's research on the temporal lobe's neural circuitry and its link to epilepsy patients' obsession with religion

Author/s: Jamie Talan
Issue: March-April, 1998

While looking into how the brain regulates behavior, Vilayanur Ramashandran, M.D., thinks he may have found God. The neurologist believes that somewhere in the brain's temporal lobes there may be neural circuitry for religious experience; he points to the fact that about 25 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy are obsessed with religion. "I have temporal lobe patients walking into my laboratory wearing a huge cross and carrying a 500-page tome on the nature of God," says Ramashandran, of the University of California in San Diego.

He thinks that these patients' seizures caused damage to the pathway that connects two areas of the brain: the one that recognizes sensory information and the one that gives such information emotional context. "Everything becomes very significant," he says. These patients a seeing depth in every little thing."

To support his theory that there is a specialized circuitry in the brain for religious experience, Ramashandran and his colleagues hooked up temporal-lobe patients and healthy controls to a machine that records the body's physical reactions to stimuli. Three groups of words were presented to the patients: neutral words; profane or sexually loaded words; and religious words.

Normal people set off the response meter when they read curses and sexually expressive words. There was no response to the neutral or religious words, even in normal volunteers who are devout. But some patients with epilepsy gave the monitor a jolt when they were presented with religious words -- and not when they heard curses or sexual words.

Ramashandran cautions that his findings are preliminary, and even if proven in the laboratory, don't invalidate religious experience. "On the contrary," he says, "they tell us what parts of the brain may be involved."



Neuro-Epileptic Origin of Mystical Exps.

This article submitted by FHBRADLEY on 11/17/97.
Email Address: FHBRADLEY@aol.com


(from Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Neuroscience by Rhawn Joseph-- Williams & Wilkins Press, Second Edition, 1996)

Question: "What are the causes and brain mechanisms involved in mystical experiences?" This one has the beginnings of a real answer from contemporary neuroscience. Below, I summarize information from my neurological research utilizing the book entitled "Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Neuroscience" by Rhawn Joseph.

<only a portion of this article is posted here>


A not uncommon characteristic of high levels of limbic system and inferior temporal lobe activity are changes in sexuality as well as a deepening of religious fervor. It is noteworthy that not just modern-day evangelists, but many ancient religious leaders, including Abraham and Muhammad, tended to be highly sexual and partook of may partners. Many also displayed evidence of the Kluver-Bucy syndrome, such as eating dung (Ezekiel), as well as temporal lobe hyperactivation and epilepsy.

Muhammad, God’s alleged messenger, was apparently dyslexic and agraphic (loss, partial or total, of the ability to write) and was known to lose consciousness and enter into trance states. In fact, he had his first truly spiritual/religious conversion when, as the story goes, he was torn from his sleep by the archangel Gabriel.

Muhammad was basically a kind and considerate man, but he was also known to fly into extreme rages and to kill, or at least order killed, wealthy infidels and merchants and those who opposed him. These behaviors, when coupled with his increased sexuality, heightened religious fervor, trance states, mood swings, and possible auditory and visual hallucinations of a titanic angel, certainly point to the limbic system and inferior temporal lobe as the possible neurological foundation for these experiences.

Among a TINY MINORITY of humans, the nuclei of the limbic system have a tendency to periodically become over-activated. When this occurs, emotions may be perceived or expressed abnormally, and the sensory and emotional filtering that normally takes place in these nuclei is reduced or abolished. Moreover, instead of being merely overly sensitive, those affected may suddenly experience extreme anger, rage, paranoia, depression, sexual desire, or even religious ecstasy. And they may hallucinate the presence of threatening people, animals, or even religious figures. Deepening of emotions, hallucinations, alterations in sex drive, and the development of extreme religious beliefs (i.e., hyper religiousness) are not uncommon manifestations of limbic-temporal lobe seizures and hyperactivation.

In fact, certain individuals who develop temporal lobe epilepsy and, thus, limbic hyperactivation, may suddenly become hyper-religious and spend hours reading and talking about the Bible (or other culturally relevant scriptures) and other religious issues. Once this condition develops, they may spend hours every day preaching or writing out their mystical and/or religious thoughts, or engaging in certain actions they believe have religious significance. Many modern-day religious writers also happen to suffer from epilepsy are, in fact, exceedingly prolific, and those who feel impelled to preach tend to do just that.

People who suffer from periodic episodes of limbic and temporal lobe hyper-activation, such as those with temporal lobe epilepsy, typically have seizures. It is not uncommon for these seizures to be preceded by an hallucination.

The great existential author, Feodor Dostoevsky, apparently suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. Dostoevsky alleged, via one of his characters, that when he had a seizure the gates of Heaven would open and he could see row upon row of angels blowing on great golden trumpets. Then two great golden doors would open and he could see a golden stairway that would lead right up to the throne of God.

As noted above, there is some evidence that many religious and spiritual leaders have had similar temporal lobe, limbic-system-induced religious experiences. Moses, for example, may have suffered from temporal lobe seizures. Presumably, this was a consequence of being left, as an infant, for days to bake in the sun, after his mother abandoned him in a basket on a small stream. If that were the case, his brain could have become overheated and damaged by the scorching Egyptian sun.

If Moses subsequently developed temporal lobe epilepsy, this cold explain his hyper-religious fervor, his rages, and the numerous murders he committed or ordered. His speech impediment, hyper-graphia (copious and obsessive writing with a neurological etiology), and hallucinations, such as hearing the voice of God speaking to him from a burning bush, are symptoms not uncommonly associated with temporal lobe seizures and limbic hyperactivation.

It has been well established that even short-term social and sensory isolation lasting just a few days can induce emotionally and visually profound and complex hallucinations that can be so personally distressing that volunteers will refuse to discuss them.

John C. Lilly in 1972, combined LSD with prolonged water immersion and social and sensory isolation for about 7 hours on several occasions, and experienced and observed the presence of spiritual God-like beings who beckoned to him.

Isolation, as well as food and water deprivation, increased or decreased sexual activity, pain, drug use, self-mutilation, prayer, and meditation are common methods of attaining mystical states of religious an spiritual awareness, and have been employed world-wide, across time and culture. These states also activate the limbic system.

For example, not only can pain or a desirable food item or sex partner result in limbic arousal, but when the limbic system is denied normal modes of input, be it sensory, emotional, social, or nutritional, it can become hyperactive; stimuli normally deleted and/or subject to sensory filtering are instead perceived. That is, limbic sensory acuity is increased, and in some respects what is perceived is not always an "hallucination" in the sense that it really involves the perception of overlapping sensory qualities that are normally filtered out. Sensory filtering is quite common at the level of the amygdala, which contains neurons that are multimodally responsive as well as inhibitory via serotonin. However, when this filter is removed, hallucinations and/or the perception of unusual sensory qualities can result.



Spirituality and the Brain

Does Research Show New Evidence for Faith, or a Challenge to Religion?

By Michel Martin


W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 14 — Believers from every tradition and around the world have reported similar sensations of religious experience — a feeling of completeness, absence of self, or oneness with the universe, feelings of peace, freedom from fear, ecstatic joy, visions of a Supreme Being.

With the aid of new technology that allows them to watch the brain in action, a group of scientists — sometimes described as "neurotheologists" — have tried to explain how such experiences occur and perhaps even why.
"There are certain [brain] patterns that can be generated experimentally that will generate the sense, presence and the feeling of God-like experiences," says professor of Neuroscience Michael Persinger of Ontario's Laurentia University. "The patterns we use are complex but they imitate what the brain does normally."

Persinger originally set out to explore the nature of creativity and sense of self. But his research into patterns of brain activity led him to delve into the nature of mystical experiences as well.

To do this Persinger puts his subjects in a quiet room, depriving them of light and sound, so that the nerve cells typically involved in seeing and hearing are not stimulated. Then he applies a magnetic field pattern over the right hemisphere of the brain.

Persinger was asked if his work leads him to conclude that "God," or the experience of God, is solely the creation of brain-wave activity.

"My point of view is, 'Let's measure it.' Let's keep an open mind and realize maybe there is no God; maybe there might be," says Persinger. "We're not going to answer it by arguments — we're going to answer it by measurement and understanding the areas of the brain that generate the experience and the patterns that experimentally produce it in the laboratory."

Mind, Body and Belief

To others who have thought deeply about religion, that is a conclusion that far outstrips the evidence — a scientific leap of faith, if you will.

"They have isolated one small aspect of religious experience and they are identifying that with the whole of religion," says John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University.

Religion "is not all meditative bliss. It also involves moments when you feel abandoned by God," says Haught. "It involves commitments and suffering and struggle.… Religion is visiting widows and orphans; it is symbolism and myth and story and much richer things."

Persinger says he is less concerned with trying to prove or disprove the existence of God than with understanding and documenting the experience. However, in his view, "if we have to draw conclusions now, based upon the data, the answer would be more on the fact that there is no deity."

He is clear about an underlying motivation of his work — a fear that unscrupulous people might use techniques to provoke a spiritual experience to control people.

But Persinger also acknowledges a more positive possibility: "If you look at the spontaneous cases of people who have God experiences and conversions, their health improves," he says. "So if we can understand the patterns of activity that generate this experience, we may also be able to understand how to have the brain — and hence the body — cure itself."

What Prayer Does

That search for the mind-body connection also motivates the work of other researchers, such as Professor Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Whether there is a God or not in some senses isn't as relevant to the kind of research we're doing so much as understanding why those feelings and experiences are important to us as human beings," he says.

Newberg observed the brains of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns as they engaged in deep prayer and mediation by injecting radioactive dye, or "tracer" as the subject entered a deep meditative state, then photographing the results with a high tech imaging camera. He found that "when people meditate they have significantly increased activity in the frontal area — the attention area of the brain — and decreased activity in that orientation part of the brain."

Many of these changes occur whether people are praying (focusing on oneness with a deity) or meditating (focusing on oneness with the universe). But there are differences, in that prayer activates the "language center" in the brain, while the "visual center" is engaged by meditation.

Either way, Newberg finds that the sense of "unity," or "oneness" experienced by his subjects is a real, biological event. And he acknowledges the limits of his own work: He currently lacks a means to measure the neurological events associated with other religious practices — such as caring for the poor or ecstatic worship.

"Our work really points to the fact that these are very complex kinds of feelings and experiences that affect us on many different levels," says Newberg. "There is no one simple way of looking at these kinds of questions."

Science and the Afterlife

Across the country, at the University of Arizona, professor of Neurology and Psychiatry Gary Schwartz would probably say: "Amen" to that.

Perhaps the most controversial of the group of researchers dedicated to studying the "God spot" in the brain, Schwartz explores the question of whether consciousness survives death with the help of mediums (people who demonstrate unusual accuracy in describing intimate attributes of the dead to those who knew them well).

His experiments compare the brain waves and heart rates of both the medium and the person for whom he or she is trying to contact the dead.

"One of the fundamental questions is, 'How does a medium receive this kind of information?'" he explains. "To what extent are they using specific regions of the brain which are purportedly associated with other kinds of mystical or religious experiences?"

Schwartz says his research "is actually a window or a doorway, if you will, to a much larger spiritual reality which integrates ancient wisdom with contemporary science."

He concludes that the human brain is wired to receive signals from what he calls a "Grand Organizing Design," or G.O.D.

"Survival of conscience tells us that consciousness does not require a brain, that our memories, our intentions, our intelligence, our dreams? all of that can exist outside of the physical body," says Schwartz. "Now, by the way, that's the same idea that we have about God — that something that is "invisible," that is "bigger than all of us," which we cannot see, can have intellect, creativity, intention, memory and can influence the universe."

The Quest for Larger Things

Like the other researchers interviewed for Nightline, Schwartz suggests that his work has taken him on a personal spiritual journey, requiring him to ask himself hard questions about science, faith, and reason. And Schwartz says that rather than diminishing faith, inquiries like his should enlarge the world's understanding of it.

On that point, he and theologian John Haught agree.

"Faith is the sense of being grasped by this higher dimension, or more comprehensive, or deeper reality," says Haught. "If we could come up with clear proof or an absolutely mathematically lucid proof or verification of deity, then that would not be deity — it would be something smaller than us.…"

— Nightline producer Joe O'Connor contributed to this report.